Kanye West may very well be on the road to redemption after his, shall we say, “awkward” 2018, with his Sunday Services touring the country leading up to the release of his latest album, Jesus Is King, this Friday (supposedly). Kanye isn’t the first rapper to look to the Lord for his salvation; DMX, who graced Kanye’s Sunday Services with one of his patented, passionate prayers, and Kanye’s hero Mase are just two examples among many of rappers who traded in rhyme books for Bibles and recording booths for lecterns in the pulpit.
And while it should take a lot more than a (hopefully) great, gospel-tinged album to get him back into Black America’s good graces (it won’t), the theme of spirituality isn’t new to Kanye. Longtime fans — i.e. the ones who were listening to Kanye before the “Taylor Swift incident” — will remember that Kanye’s first few forays into the gospel sound weren’t repentant grasps at his dwindling public approval, but truly risky outpourings of his heartfelt beliefs. When Kanye sampled the ARC Choir’s “Walk With Me” on his debut album The College Dropout, he faced a possibly hostile reception; as he says on the track itself, “They say you could rap about anything except for Jesus.”
So now, he’s apparently coming back full circle. While we aren’t completely sure what his new album will sound like, it does appear he’ll once again draw inspiration from the gospel influences that once marked him as a groundbreaking rebel. Now, gospel may very well be his saving grace after he spent nearly 12 months chipping away at the goodwill he’d built up since putting out My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — his first project to function as a mea culpa, but clearly not his last. Whatever his use of gospel says about him now, it has always functioned as a window into his state of mind, telling us Kanye is — and how he sees himself. So, what is the gospel according to Kanye? Let’s take a look.
The original Kanye gospel rap might still be his best. At the time, the Chicagoan was still emerging as a rapper after being known as mainly a producer through the early part of his career. “Jesus Walks” dropped at the height of the hustler rap era and Kanye, who already departed so wildly from the status quo in so many ways, took a big gamble on this choir-sampling manifesto. It paid off, earning him and co-writer Rhymefest their first Grammys for Best Rap Song.
“Touch The Sky”
While the Curtis Mayfield sample that buttresses this track isn’t typically known as a straightforward gospel song, “Touch The Sky” is a joyous celebration of Kanye’s success after his first album — something for which he was still grounded enough to credit a higher power. The reflective lyrics contrast with the propulsive sample by painting the picture of his come-up, and granting the closing verse to fellow Windy Star rising star Lupe Fiasco was Kanye’s ultimate expression of the Christian mandate to be a blessing to others.
Still in his celebratory phase, the first hints of Kanye’s ego beginning to take hold start to show themselves (“I could stand there in a Speedo and be looked at like a f*ckin’ hero”). At this point, Kanye hadn’t yet strayed from his grounded beliefs, but the subject of his glorification started to feel hazy.
In times of trouble, many of us call on a higher power for grace, mercy, or barring all else, comfort. In the wake of his mother’s death, Kanye looks for some sense of warmth. Unfortunately, it’s in those times we can also lose sight of our guiding stars — in Kanye’s case, “Pinocchio’s Story” paints a tale of supreme desolation. He’s bereft, cut off, and lost in a cold, cruel world without his closest confidant and biggest cheerleader. It’s no wonder he doesn’t just sound vulnerable, but borderline faithless.
“All Of The Lights”
There are no overt gospel flourishes here, aside from Kanye utilizing a small army of his famous friends to form something of a choir on the chorus. But this song is half praise, half lamentation, Kanye searching for the faith that once sustained him through the third-party narrative of baby mama drama. He contemplates his struggles with fame through the more mundane storyline and wrestles with conflicting desires and distractions from legal trouble to the self-destructive lifestyles he and his closest associates have adopted. He truly is lost in the world.
“I Am A God”
Kanye becomes his own golden calf, his hubris reaching its stylistic peak. The Bible says God cast down Lucifer for setting himself up as an equal and this is Kanye at his most prideful, his fall right around the corner.
It’s ironic that Kanye returned to his most overt display of gospel trappings — performing this song with genre stalwart Kirk Franklin on Saturday Night Live, kicking off the track with a sample of a child praying — as well as came seemingly full circle, lifting up another Chicago rising star in Chance The Rapper the way he’d previously done with Lupe Fiasco, just before the breakdown that would shift our perception of Kanye as a producer, rapper, and as a man.
God may not make mistakes, but Kanye sure does. In the lead-up to Ye‘s release, he made a ton, from unwittingly co-signing the draconian policies of Donald Trump, to inadvertently becoming a mouthpiece for far-right “free thinkers,” it’s clear that in 2018, Kanye wanted to synthesize his faith, his lived experience, and some of his more radical theories into a messianic message of hope and love. Maybe he missed the mark because he didn’t think it through enough, because he is less articulate outside of music, or maybe he’s just too far ahead of the game to make much sense, but if his next effort can refine the formula, it’s possible he’ll get the point across this time around and find his audience much more receptive to the Gospel Of Kanye.